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Resignation at Harvard Latest but Not Last Salvo in GOP War on Colleges

REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo
Harvard University sits as leaders of various universities, including Harvard President Claudine Gay, have taken heat from both Jewish communities, which have said they are tolerating antisemitism, and Pro-Palestinian groups, which have accused schools of being neutral or antagonistic towards their cause, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., December 12, 2023.

The resignation of Claudine Gay as president of Harvard University marks the culmination of a conservative war on higher education, long fought on campuses and in statehouses but this time triggered by hard questions from Republicans in Washington and their allies.

The fallout raised numerous questions, including how the GOP might continue to pressure universities, which they charge are overwhelmingly liberal, intolerant of conservative views, and overly concerned with questions of race and identity.

“A reckoning is coming to higher education,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), whose questioning during a congressional hearing led to the resignations of the president of the University of Pennsylvania and then, on Tuesday, Gay. “This is just the beginning of exposing the rot in our most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions.”

Many worried about meddling by lawmakers in academic freedom and the affairs of universities. Like her critics, Gay, who in July became Harvard’s first Black president, saw the attacks as part of a larger war over culture and the role of universities in American life.

“The campaign against me was about more than one university and one leader. This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society,” she wrote in an essay published Wednesday in the New York Times. She also offered a plea: “College campuses in our country must remain places where students can learn, share and grow together, not spaces where proxy battles and political grandstanding take root.”

The downfall of Gay was tied to multiple controversies. Amid sharp debate over Israel’s war in Gaza and rising antisemitism on college campuses, Gay and other college leaders appeared before Congress, where they declined to state plainly that a call for genocide against Jews would violate their universities’ codes of conduct. Then came allegations of plagiarism against Gay, which were publicized by conservative activists.

Underlying the swirling controversies was an ongoing and deepening divide between higher education and conservatives.

In 2015, Gallup polling found 56 percent of Republicans had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. By 2023, that had fallen to 19 percent. (Confidence fell among Democrats, too, but far less dramatically, from 68 percent to 59 percent.)

Meanwhile, voters increasingly are sorting themselves into parties based on education, with college-educated voters growing increasingly Democratic.

A 2023 Pew Research Center survey found 55 percent of college graduates leaned Democratic versus 41 percent who leaned Republican. The loyalties were reversed among non-college graduates, particularly those who are White. Republican identification was 47 percent among all adults who did not graduate from college. And it was 61 percent among non-college Whites – about double the share for Democrats.

These preferences make it politically attractive for Republicans to aim their fire at universities, particularly elite universities.

“A huge section of their increasing working class base regards colleges and college professors with suspicion. They’re not really risking that much by going after them,” said Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.

“Their base is comprised of a certain demographic profile,” he added. “They are not the people who regard Harvard with a certain reverence.”

On Wednesday, Republicans and other critics felt momentum on their side, with two of the three college leaders who had testified before the House committee last month now resigned. Some renewed calls for the third campus leader, MIT President Sally Kornbluth, to step down as well.

An MIT spokeswoman on Wednesday said Kornbluth retained support from the MIT Corp. A letter from Kornbluth to the campus community promised to appoint a new vice president of equity and inclusion and work to balance freedom of expression with mutual respect. She also said the university would improve student disciplinary processes.

In addition, despite calls from some critics, Harvard’s top governing board member is not resigning, a university spokesman said Wednesday.

Beyond the bully pulpit

The high-profile resignations were triggered by use of the bully pulpit – namely, a politically tone deaf response by the university presidents when asked about tolerating calls for genocide. But House Republicans were continuing a broader investigation into what Stefanik on Wednesday called “a fundamentally broken and corrupt higher education system,” including antisemitism on campus and diversity and equity initiatives.

“While President Gay’s resignation is welcome news, the problems at Harvard are much larger than one leader and the Committee’s oversight will continue,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

On the state level, conservatives have pushed a culture war that began over K-12 education into higher education. In Florida, for instance, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) – now running for president – upended a small public college with a liberal reputation by appointing six new trustees who swept in change. In Texas, public universities scrambled to comply with a new law banning mandatory diversity training. Overall, seven states adopted anti-DEI – diversity, equity and inclusion – laws aimed at universities last year, according to tracking by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Observers predicted conservatives would increase the pressure from the federal level, too.

Kenneth L. Marcus, who headed the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights under President Donald Trump, said conservatives who want an activist approach to education are ascendant in the party over those with the traditional view that the federal government should take a hands-off approach.

He said new initiatives might include the sort of laws GOP-led states have passed to limit diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at colleges, or new rules that try to force universities to include conservative opinions in courses or other campus forums.

“Higher education would likely be high on the agenda of any incoming Republican president,” said Marcus, who is chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.

Already, conservative members of Congress, including Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), have introduced bills threatening to withhold federal education funding from colleges that fail to protect free speech or fight antisemitism on campus.

Jonathan Fansmith, senior vice president of government relations at the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities, anticipates more such legislation in the coming year, though he suspects such efforts will fall flat without bipartisan support. He said it’s also very difficult for any law to clearly define what would constitute a violation.

“Everyone expects in 2024, especially given the election cycle, you’re going to hear a lot of pretty heated rhetoric and you’re going to see a lot of people who, for whatever electoral reasons, want to hold up colleges, universities for attack,” he said.

As president, Trump attempted to flex the federal government’s power against universities but didn’t get far. For instance, he threatened to cut off federal funding to the University of California at Berkeley after violent protests shut down a controversial speaker in 2017, but he never did. He also charged that universities were inundating students with “a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation,” and teaching them that “our entire society must be radically transformed.”

Anxiety in Cambridge

At Harvard on Wednesday, there was alarm about the extent and ferocity of political pressure on the campus, and concern that it had set a precedent that could harm higher education nationally.

“This was partisan political pressure on the university in a way that we haven’t seen in recent history in the United States,” said Ryan Enos, a professor of government at Harvard. “And frankly, if it can happen to Harvard – with its $50 billion endowment, it should be able to resist the pressure of this type – it’s really concerning how it could happen in other places.”

He said it could be a sign of the continued unraveling of the support that universities used to have across the political spectrum. And given the contributions that higher education makes in research and medicine and to the national economy, he argued, campuses shouldn’t be allowed to become a sort of football to be kicked around in the national culture wars.

Many faculty members were braced for more of the same. “I do think that we have to be prepared for further attacks on higher education, on its integrity and independence,” said Alison Frank Johnson, a professor of history at Harvard.

Some professors also were furious that Gay’s credentials had been attacked by critics who suggested she was only hired to provide racial diversity, despite her experience, including successfully leading the university’s faculty of arts and sciences through the pandemic.

But others were unbothered by the resignation. Jacob Cremers, a senior at Harvard, said Gay was “unqualified and unprepared” for the job in the first place. “She had been groomed by the Harvard Corporation to be president, and what happened proves that this is not a good system for getting qualified people to lead Harvard,” he said.

“If Harvard wants to be an open university, influence the world and open doors to everyone, they need to welcome and expect criticism,” he added.

Avi Loeb, a professor of science and the director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at Harvard, said Gay’s job – a role that requires successful fundraising and good relations with Washington – would have become impossible as friction from the outside world increased.

He described Harvard’s culture as unrepresentative of American society. “Students come from all political backgrounds, different points of view, and then they come to this place that advocates for one extreme,” said Loeb, who was born in Israel and has been at Harvard 30 years.

Universities should be working to reduce polarization, he argued, by inviting people who think differently to engage in dialogue, to try to understand the other side of the political map and make Harvard a better representation of American society. “Only when you represent society around you, you can actually survive the friction with the outside world,” he said.

College leaders elsewhere also have been watching the fallout from the congressional hearing, worried about what the increasingly polarizing political climate means for higher education broadly.

“This political moment is so toxic, and it’s so threatening,” Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, said in an interview Wednesday. She fears that boards of trustees and university presidents will go silent in the face of conflict where she sees a responsibility to speak out in defense of the academy, students, their principles, and commitment to social justice and racial justice.

And in Cambridge on Wednesday, some were simply frustrated watching vocal critics celebrate their victory – online, in media interviews and public statements.

“Harvard is a great big target,” said Jennifer Hochschild, a professor of government and African and African American studies at Harvard. “And bringing down Harvard’s president is a great big megaphone.”